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Critique of Ayn Rand’s Ethics

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30 minutes ago, whYNOT said:

However Kant justifies all this, the premises and consequences of his doctrine are and will be self-lessness.

Could you clearly lay out the premises and show how they lead to that consequence? Because none of the many Kant scholars I've read agrees with you. That doesn't make you wrong, of course, but it surely does put the onus on you to make the reasoning at the back of this claim - for so far, it is merely a claim - explicit.

 

30 minutes ago, whYNOT said:

Well, you have to admit "a duty to cultivate our inclinations",  is a massive self-contradiction. How does one's mind contort what an individual self-interestedly wants and chooses to do - into an act of "duty"? Similarly, how does a duty-bound individual fake himself into believing he's acting dutifully from "inclination"? Not for long, as we know from observation.

If I desire to help you - say, I enjoy helping others - and I help you only because I enjoy it, then I've acted from inclination - that is, from desire and emotion and etc. - and not from duty. For, as I said earlier, had I not desired to help you, I wouldn't have - indeed, had I rather desired to harm you, the implicit principle on which I've acted, viz. do what you enjoy doing, would have licensed my harming you instead. So it's not that "one's mind contort what an individual self-interestedly wants and chooses to do - into an act of "duty"", but that one recognizes that the moral worth of one's action depends entirely on one's reason for acting. And the fact that one enjoys phi-ing doesn't prevent one from realizing that one's enjoyment may not justify one's phi-ing, i.e. may not constitute a sufficient reason for phi-ing.

The notion that we have to train our inclinations is as old as moral philosophy itself. It's central to Aristotle's account of ethics, for instance. Each act contributes to our constructing a character, which just is some combination of (a) a set of dispositions to find certain things pleasurable and painful and (b) the strength will to do what's right regardless of our inclinations. To the extent that we realize that each act constructs our character, we're responsible for considering the effects of our actions on the development of our character. The drug addict (often) has some responsibility for his addiction insofar as he knows that, with each use, he's forming a disposition to desire the drug, and so he has something akin to a moral duty not to form such a disposition. 

Edited by Eric D

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I can't get the lines out of the last portion of that last post, whatever I try, and I'm not going to rewrite the post again! My apologies.

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Eric, I know the rigmarole involved in trying to argue against (or for, for that matter) Kant. What he said, what he meant, what one scholar interprets, or another. And so on.

There's enough of that with a clear and forthright, objective philosopher, Rand. ;)

So I'm not going to delve back into Kantian scholars' writing again and certainly not going to painfully try to understand his premises from his perspective again.  I'll argue from an objective pov. 

If one takes a step back and looks at this subject clearly, there is only one question: Why?

Who declared, and by what moral right, that a man has any dutiful/inclined/assumed morality to another? In fact, to do ~anything~ for others? (Rhetorical. Enter whomever you like: Jesus, Comte, Rousseau, Marx, Kant...by God's orders, the Society's, the Universe's - etc. )

Does each individual have his own life and mind, or not?

There's a ton of presumptions, based tacitly upon individual value,** in every ethics which - in any way or form - advocates or involves the "other".

How to deal with, get on with, help (on occasions, by choice) etc. etc. - other individuals and people, is actually the easiest behavior to habitually practice. There is nothing to it but some simple good manners, basic respect and perceived individual value. Observing others' rights comes easy, too. 

Men don't need an ethical system for that. 

**Stolen Concept Fallacy;  dependent on the concept "individual value" in order to undermine an individual's moral value in himself in favor of an automatic, moral value system for any and all collective "others"..

Edited by whYNOT

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23 minutes ago, whYNOT said:

Who declared, and by what moral right, that a man has any dutiful/inclined/assumed morality to another? In fact, to do ~anything~ for others? (Rhetorical. Enter whomever you like: Jesus, Comte, Rousseau, Marx, Kant...)

Does each individual have his own life and mind, or not?

Yes. Each person has his own mind, but now ask the all important further question: what does a practical being (here 'practical' concerns reflection on how to act) do with its mind qua practical being? It adduces reasons for acting! And if reasons are inherently shareable, then you implicitly acknowledge reasons to which others can appeal when you adduce reasons for your own actions (which you do whenever you act). And if you recognize their legitimacy in your own case, then it's only on pain of irrationality that you can refuse to acknowledge their legitimacy when others (in relevantly similar contexts) make use of them. So if you take your reasons to justify your ends, then you must (again, in relevantly similar contexts) take the very same reasons to justify the ends of others (if they're genuine reasons). In short, duties are in a sense implied by the very act of adducing reasons for acting, which is what we all do whenever we act (qua human beings).

23 minutes ago, whYNOT said:

Eric, I know the rigmarole involved in trying to argue against (or for, for that matter) Kant. What he said, what he meant, what one scholar interprets, or another. And so on.

There's enough of that with a clear and forthright, objective philosopher, Rand. ;)

So I'm not going to delve back into Kantian scholars' writing again and certainly not going to painfully try to understand his premises from his perspective again.  I'll argue from an objective pov. 

That's fine, of course, but then you don't have the right to argue that Kant's philosophy implies such and such. For if you want to make such claims - which it seems to me you did above - then you have to get into the interpretation. That's why I tried to do so early on in this thread, when I was asking for a take on Rand's argument before I presented my criticism of it, so I could see whether my objections were targeted at Rand or at a strawman. 

Edited by Eric D

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10 hours ago, Eric D said:

It's not arbitrary at all. Indeed, it seems to be part of the concept of a reason that reasons are shareable. So imagine that two qualitatively identical agents, A1 and A2, are in qualitatively identical contexts, C1 and C2. Further suppose that R is a reason for A1 to do some act A in C1. Now to say that reasons are not shareable is to say that, given all that, R may nonetheless not be a reason for A2 to do A in C2. But why think that?

This sounds very interesting. I argued for something like this once before, but for a discussion on free will. Namely, that whatever particular method one uses to make a decision, that method will produce the same outcome if the identical context is repeated. I take that view as something consistent with Rand, but it's hard to say. In some sense, moral action is universalizable even for Rand. Of course, she treats universals as something different than Kant. Even more, Rand cares about an interested perspective and including it as a necessary part of rational action. My knowledge about Kant is limited, but I do know that he pushes for objectivity in the disinterested sense. 

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Eiuol, I know that some philosophers - indeed, some exceptionally sharp and talented philosophers - would say that reasons are not shareable, but I have a difficult time seeing why anyone ought to believe that this is the case. So, suppose I believe that the fact that I find studying philosophy to be enjoyable counts as a reason for me to study philosophy. If someone else also enjoys studying philosophy, why wouldn't I be committed to the notion that that fact is minimally a pro tanto reason for her to study it as well? Sure, her situation may be such that it's not a sufficient reason to study philosophy, but it surely seems as if it's at least a pro tanto reason for doing it. After all, what basis would I have for the claim, 'the fact that I enjoy studying philosophy counts as a reason in favor of my studying philosophy, but the fact that you enjoy studying philosophy doesn't count as a reason in favor of your studying philosophy'? (Note that to say that R is a reason to A is not to say that R is a sufficient or overriding reason to A, but only to say that R counts in favor of A-ing, even if, given other considerations, one ought not to A. That is, that R may be a sufficient reason for me but not for you to A does not imply that R is not a reason for you to A.)

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To enjoy something provides a basis for valuing that something which is enjoyed. To value something in turn can provide the impetus to act to acquire it. Enjoyment serves as the reason for valuing in such a case. If developed no further and enjoyment is pursued for its own sake, it is called hedonism.

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I mean, that's what Eric said. An individual reason might not be sufficient reason to take an action, and at the same time can be universalized. Any form of objectivity in ethics (widely defined as any code of ethics which claims there are principles or rules not derived from your desires or emotions) has that feature. Not to say that Rand believes in a categorical imperative (her position is for a hypothetical imperative). As far as I understand about Kant, he doesn't believe in duty to other people or to oneself, just a sense of reason that is disinterested. Your explanations help me to understand him better. Or at least, where you're coming from.

One way to think about Rand, Eric, is that she uses a hypothetical imperative that makes heavy use of reason and man's life as a standard of value, while emphasizing that is used reason for the good of oneself. Of course it's super simplified, but it makes it easier to apply your understanding of Kant so the contrast is easier.

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8 hours ago, Eiuol said:

One way to think about Rand, Eric, is that she uses a hypothetical imperative that makes heavy use of reason and man's life as a standard of value, while emphasizing that is used reason for the good of oneself. Of course it's super simplified, but it makes it easier to apply your understanding of Kant so the contrast is easier.

Would you say that Rand's ethics in a sense starts with a hypothetical imperative, the antecedent of which is, 'If you will to live, then you must will to do such and such'? If that's right - or at least on the right track - then how would you fill out the consequent of that hypothetical imperative?

Incidentally, I understand Kant's argument against the notion that morality can be reduced to hypothetical imperatives to go something like this: our concept of morality just is the concept of practical principles that bind all (well-functioning) rational beings, regardless of their particular constitutions, in relevantly similar contexts, and hence, since hypothetical imperatives bind only rational beings who are constituted such that they satisfy their antecedents, they (hypothetical imperatives) are not the sort or practical principle that could be properly categorized as moral. Here is the relevant passage from the Groundwork:

"Everyone must admit that a law, if it is to be valid morally, i.e., as the ground of an obligation, has to carry absolute necessity with it; that the command ‘You ought not to lie’ is valid not merely for human beings, as though other rational beings did not have to heed it; and likewise all the other genuinely moral laws; hence that the ground of obligation here is to be sought not in the nature of the human being or the circumstances of the world in which he is placed, but a priori solely in concepts of pure reason, and that every other precept grounded on principles of mere experience, and even a precept that is universal in a certain aspect, insofar as it is supported in the smallest part on empirical grounds, perhaps only as to its motive, can be called a practical rule, but never a moral law."

"As far as I understand about Kant, he doesn't believe in duty to other people or to oneself, just a sense of reason that is disinterested."

Kant does recognize what he calls 'imperfect duties' to others and to oneself. These follow, he argues, from the failure of maxims that make one's own happiness the sole object of one's pursuit, and deny that we must in any way be concerned with the happiness of others. I won't get into the finer details of why they fail, but here's a quick overview. In essence, they fail because of the analyticity of hypothetical imperatives. That is, if you will a particular end - note, if you will the end, not merely desire it or wish for it - then you must, as a matter of necessity, will the necessary means to it. Kant argues that maxims that make your own happiness your sole aim cannot be maintained because human beings have certain needs such that, were we deprived of them and our only way of obtaining them was through the willing aid of another, we'd have to will that they be satisfied (since we must will their satisfaction, and if we will something, we will the necessary means to it). Thus, such maxims fail due to a contradiction in our wills (we will the initial maxim, and hence will its universalization (because reasons are inherently shareable), but we cannot (as the imagined situation shows) will its universalization). Failures of this sort generate imperfect duties, i.e. the duty to have particular ends, here, the end of the happiness of others (another end that we have an imperfect duty to hold is our own perfection). As I said in the thread above, imperfect duties do not require us to act in particular ways in particular circumstances, and so give us much leeway regarding how and when to act on them. This leaves a lot of space in Kant's ethics for the exercise of moral judgment, and for the pursuit of our own projects (that is, his ethics isn't concerned with the simple and cold and thoughtless rule-following procedures that are often thought to characterize it, but rather leaves plenty of room for careful and  thoughtful judgment and for the pursuit of our own aims).

 

Edited by Eric D

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8 hours ago, Eiuol said:

(her position is for a hypothetical imperative)

Definition of hypothetical imperative

: an imperative of conduct that springs from expediency or practical necessity rather than from moral law —contrasted with categorical imperative.

This is a position ascribed to Rand?

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Dream_Weaver, if Rand thinks that all of morality depends on some fundamental choice, such as the choice to live - and if she thinks that the choice to live implies certain choices in action - then it's difficult to see how her ethics isn't based on a hypothetical imperative (though one formulated in terms of choosing, not willing). But we need not define hypothetical imperatives by contrasting them with categorical imperatives. Rather, we merely need define them in terms of their essential conditionality, i.e. an imperative is hypothetical when the necessity of willing/choosing to do such and such (i.e. the imperative) is entirely contingent on some prior willing/choosing. Or we could say that hypothetical imperatives are imperatives such that discharging the imperative's antecedent discharges the imperative itself, and hence they are merely conditionally binding imperatives.

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46 minutes ago, Eric D said:

an imperative is hypothetical when the necessity of willing/choosing to do such and such (i.e. the imperative) is entirely contingent on some prior willing/choosing.

From The Objectivist Ethics:

“Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice—and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man—by choice; he has to hold his life as a value—by choice; he has to learn to sustain it—by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues—by choice. A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality.”

Being entirely contingent on some prior willing/choosing comes across as recursive. What gets tied into this elsewhere is the acceptance of the axiom that existence exists, and while the axiom is accepted by choice, it is not contingent upon ones choosing.

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If we choose not to live, have we violated any rational or moral precepts? Or is it the case that those rational and moral precepts depend for their normativity on our having decided to live in the first place?

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An organism’s life depends on two factors: the material or fuel which it needs from the outside, from its physical background, and the action of its own body, the action of using that fuel properly. What standard determines what is proper in this context? The standard is the organism’s life, or: that which is required for the organism’s survival.

No choice is open to an organism in this issue: that which is required for its survival is determined by its nature, by the kind of entity it is.

By such reckoning, with no choice being open in this regard, it appears to lie outside of this hypothetical imperative. This is where those who stay alive without exercising the choice in question, do so at the behest of those who have made that choice.

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But I thought we were discussing the initial choice of whether to remain alive, not some proposed subsequent choice about how to remain alive. Indeed, the passage you just quoted seems to support the notion that there's a hypothetical imperative lurking somewhere here, for *if* you choose to remain alive, then you *must* do certain things, for those requirements are 'determined by [the organism's] nature'.

Edited by Eric D

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Here's Peikoff's statement from chapter 7 of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR):

If life is what you want, you must pay for it, by accepting and practicing a code of rational behavior. Morality, too, is a must—if; it is the price of the choice to live. That choice itself, therefore, is not a moral choice; it precedes morality; it is the decision of consciousness that underlies the need of morality.

Fairly explicit, in that regard. His footnote references page 941 of Atlas Shrugged, but I don't have the particular variant of the novel he cites.

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1 hour ago, dream_weaver said:

By such reckoning, with no choice being open in this regard, it appears to lie outside of this hypothetical imperative.

A hypothetical imperative doesn't mean that means to an end only exist contingent upon making a certain choice. It simply means that if you want X, you must do Y. Yes, some people may characterize this as making morality pragmatic, Kant as well perhaps, but in any case, the obligation they hold for you is conditional. I don't think your clarifications are helping, or at least, I don't know why you're making the clarification. If you can describe a hypothetical imperative, then you already know all the things clarified.

This goes back to my very first post in this thread. If you don't choose life, then it really doesn't matter. 
 

6 hours ago, Eric D said:

then how would you fill out the consequent of that hypothetical imperative?

Isn't "living" the consequent? If you mean the reward of life, that would be happiness (not that we should choose to live in order to be happy, but that if we choose to live, and act with regard to that end, we will end up happy). I'm not sure what you're asking. 

I wouldn't necessarily say Rand *starts* with a hypothetical imperative. It's the foundation, but it isn't the beginning to the chain of reasoning to determine what that foundation is. The beginning is thinking about the nature of man, with prior epistemological theories* already baked into it. 

*I say theory to emphasize that Rand already had specific ways to think about epistemology. She wasn't working from "common sense" or intuition.

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I'm not likely to have much time to participate in this discussion for some weeks going forward, so I'd like to thank all of you for the enjoyable conversation. I hope to get clearer about how Rand thought about ethics from you in future discussions, or as we continue this discussion (since I will come back to check the thread when I have the time, and hope to respond to any additional comments that I find helpful).

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On 11/17/2019 at 10:56 AM, Eiuol said:

This goes back to my very first post in this thread. If you don't choose life, then it really doesn't matter. 

When there is capacity to choose, isn't the initial choice of whether to remain alive or not  ... hedonistic?

And as you say, it does not matter. I keep thinking it should.

It is based on how it will feel isn't it? (descriptively and objectively speaking)
There is no ethics to guide since it is amoral at this early stage.
At a baby stage there is no choice capability about it.
Also an amoral, pre-ethics stage.

 


 

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Eric D

 

As a person who identified himself as an Objectivist, you must know that morality in a very real sense is nothing more than application of valid knowledge... one cannot search for a morality that tells them why they should live or criticize a morality which does not, such a requirement would be tantamount to alleging that a person is intrinsically obligated to live which is simply not am observable fact of reality.

 

There is nothing in the fabric of the universe willing or obligating you to do anything or even to exist (not long range anyway).  There are no dogmatic "thou shalts" written in the stars or in the vibrations of the ghostly neutrinos.  The universe simply is, and you metaphysically simply are.  That's it.  It is the most simple, absolute, and undeniable fact you are in touch with, and it has an almost unfathomable complex causal chain behind it... but nothing more.

 

Reality and you, there are no other facts, no floating dogmatic consciousnesses or consciences to tell you what to do with the fact that you are and moreover that you can choose to act in reality.  Nothing intrinsic, nothing supernatural, nothing non-real, and in fact nothing real can tell you that you are obligated to live.  There IS no such obligation.  No one and no thing in the universe could convey any duty on you to choose to live or do anything as such.  In fact no thing conveys any intrinsic obligation as such, since intrinsic obligations cannot exist.

 

You are, and you act, but before you act you choose to act.  What acts do you choose and why do you choose them?  Well Nothing in the universe obligates you to any choice whatever, but it tells you that causes and effects cannot be sundered.  That your specific acts can only result in certain effects, and also that by virtue of your nature, some actions are outside of your capacity.

Morality is essentially a recognized body of knowledge of reality which acts as a guide to the choices and actions open to a living person which is conducive to life.

 

I know of a former self proclaimed Objectivist who was very disturbed by morality originating with the choice to live... "its just a choice, a choice. a choice" he would say mockingly imitating some dogmatic Objectivist straw Man, the implication being that this answer was somehow an evasion of something more profound...  he seemed to be pleading with his knowledge (or his ignorance) or pleading with his father, or his former priest, his childhood or the planet or the universe.  The circular grasping cry "Tell me, I must live.. that there is a reason outside of myself, for why I should live"...  revealed the gaping false hole left by the exit of religion and mysticism... it was vast and sorrowful...  but his pleas and his search are in vain, and always will be. 

 

Reality IS, you ARE, YOU choose... and that's it.

Once you do choose life however, there are so many options for how to go about living, and Rand had an answer about how to go about it... I like to think it is the correct one.

 

Edited by StrictlyLogical

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21 hours ago, Easy Truth said:

When there is capacity to choose, isn't the initial choice of whether to remain alive or not  ... hedonistic?

It could be for any reason at all. Pleasure and pain mechanisms (if you want to get really technical, mechanisms of conditioning involving reward and punishment) can explain why, biologically speaking, babies even act in order to continue living (the same as every other organism). Babies can make choices in terms of opting for different states of mind, different sensations, different objects, etc, but they are not remotely as cognizant of what they are choosing from compared to an adult. Philosophically though, all you need to recognize is that there is no prior ethical commitment or foundation to base this choice on. It is, in effect, arbitrary. Not that there aren't reasons, but those reasons aren't going to be ethically motivated. As you said, the choice is amoral at this stage.

I'm taking this viewpoint mostly as informed by Tara Smith in her book Viable Values. 

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